Brighton Beach Memoirs

by Neil Simon

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The Concept of Dignity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1564

In Neil Simon's play Brighton Beach Memoirs, there is an underlying theme overlooked by many critics. Each major character in the play is driven by or looks for some measure of dignity in his or her life. This measure of self-worth is an important part of why the Jerome-Morton household survives despite the cramped quarters and the economic duress of the Great Depression. The quest for human dignity does not take the same form for each character, but the variety of experiences makes the tapestry of Brighton Beach Memoirs a rich composite of the problems people face to this day.

For Stanley Jerome, the eighteen-and-a-half-year-old brother of narrator Eugene Jerome, the quest takes on several forms. This is fitting for a young man on the verge of adulthood. In Act I, Stanley nearly loses his job when he stands up for a co-worker, defending the man's honor in the face of what Stanley perceives as an injustice. This dilemma makes Stanley heartsick, but because his family needs the money so desperately, he ultimately swallows his pride and writes (or has Eugene write) the letter of apology.

While Stanley's sweeping dirt on Mr. Stroheim's shoes is immature, the rest of his actions show that he is a young man willing to speak up when he perceives that an injustice has occurred. Jobs were hard to come by during the Depression, but Stanley's instincts put dignity before commerce. If it were not for the Depression and the scarcity of jobs, it is implied that Stanley would not have apologized. In Act II, Stanley's dignity-related dilemma takes on a much different form. It is a week later, and Stanley has lost his entire week's salary at a poker game. To save face with his family, Stanley decides that he will join the Army, rationalizing that he will earn more money as a soldier, especially when he makes sergeant. He promises Eugene that he will send all his salary home. Though his parents are angry when they learn about the lost salary, they are relieved when Stanley returns having not enlisted. Though Stanley thought he could find dignity in escaping, he decides that his family will benefit more from having funds now rather than later. Simon implicitly argues that to be dignified is to face up to one's responsibilities, even when mistakes are made and great shame is the result.

One of the reasons Stanley's salary is so important in Act II lies in the fact that his father, Jack Jerome, has had a heart attack and cannot work for several weeks. Like Stanley, much of Jack's quest for dignity lies in his ability to support his family. Jack must do everything he can, no matter what the cost to his health, to pay the bills for the seven members of his household and ensure some quality of life. The weight of the family's dignity lies on his shoulders. In Act I, Jack loses his night job when the owner goes bankrupt. Jack worked as a party favor salesman to nightclubs and hotels. To compensate for this loss, Jack does several things. First, he takes as many noisemakers and party favors as he can carry to try to compensate for loss of income. Second, Jack finds another job, driving a taxi cab. This employment situation compounded by constant worry leads to his heart attack.

Though almost all of Jack's time and energy is sapped by his constant work, he does not neglect his duties as father and head of the household. He works hard to maintain the dignity of his family economically, but...

(This entire section contains 1564 words.)

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he does not forget their personal quests for dignity. Everyone looks to Jack for guidance. Stanley consults him on his work dilemma mentioned earlier. He also gives Nora counsel on her hard decision, and shows his support for both Kate and Blanche during their times of trouble. Because Nora's father is dead, and her mother will not make a decision about her audition, Jack steps in, though physically exhausted, and takes a walk with Nora to offer his advice. Though Jack is supposed to be restricted to bed rest because of his heart attack, he insists on getting up to be there for Blanche when she goes on her first date in many years.

When Frank Murphy does not come, and Kate and Blanche get into an argument, Jack does his best to intercede and get them both to understand each other. He tells them to "get it out of their systems'' and then make up. Individual dignity must be maintained in such a small space or the household would be an intolerable place to live.

The dignity-related dilemmas on the homefront are economically related on the surface. Nora is sixteen-years-old and has been taking dancing lessons, with considerable promise, for many years. In her class, she is offered an audition for a Broadway musical called Abracadabra along with a few other girls. The producer pulled her aside and said she basically had the job if she wanted it. Though she would have to drop out of school to take the role, Nora argues that she could help support her family and begin to pay back the Jeromes. Implicit in Nora's desire for the job, though, is a need for freedom, to be an adult.

When she and Jack return from their walk, Nora tells her mother, "I don't want this just for myself, Momma, but for you and for Laurie. In a few years we could have a house of our own, instead of all being cooped up here like animals. I'm asking for a way out, Momma. Don't shut me in. Don't shut me in for the rest of my life.'' Nora wants dignity in two ways, but the adults decide that she should stay in school until she gets her diploma. Nora resents the decision, but eventually she and Blanche reach a mutual understanding.

Blanche's quest for dignity is not unlike Nora's by the end of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Blanche is thirty-eight-years-old and has been a widow for six years. Because her husband left her nothing, she has had to rely on the kindness of her sister's family to survive. She does not work outside the home but takes in sewing work to contribute something to the household finances. During Act I, Blanche is content to let everyone around her make the decisions. When Nora presses her to decide if she can audition for the musical, Blanche defers to Jack's judgment. When Blanche feels tired from sewing, she lets Kate tell her when to stop. She does stand up for herself, though, when she decides to go on a date with Frank Murphy, an Irishman who lives across the street. Kate disapproves, but Blanche wins her over. After Murphy gets in an accident and the date is canceled, Blanche and Kate get into an argument. This argument leads to Blanche's realization that she has been too dependent on everyone for everything. She decides that she will get a job and move out of the house. She tells Jack, ‘‘I love you both very much. No matter what Kate says to me, I will never stop loving her. But I have to get out. If I don't do it now, I will lose whatever self-respect I have left. For people like us, sometimes the only thing we really own is our dignity.’’ Though Kate convinces her to stay with them while she looks for work, Blanche is changed by the realization that dignity is a key to life.

Kate and Eugene have very slightly different concepts of dignity than the rest of the characters in Brighton Beach. Because they are the only two characters not concerned with supporting themselves directly, they are focused more on the home and family. Kate works to ensure a dignified household is maintained despite the limited space. She makes sure everyone eats and rests, according to their needs, and she manages the money. Though she can be insensitive, Kate wants her family to hold its collective head up. During her argument with Blanche, it is revealed that Kate sometimes resents having to be the "workhorse," but she does what she can to keep her family together.

Though fourteen-year-old Eugene is the narrator and main character of Brighton Beach Memoirs, his pursuit of dignity is the simplest and one common to every teenager. He wants a little respect from his family. He does not want to be blamed for everything that goes wrong. He does not want to be the center of attention when something bad happens. He does not want to feel like the family slave, though he has to go to the store constantly for his mother. He wants to survive puberty in the Depression with his dignity intact, despite circumstances which seem to work against him. Because his concerns are universal, he is an ideal portal into the family depicted in Brighton Beach Memoirs. Though Eugene's quest for dignity might seem to be the least desperate and the most superficial of all the characters in the play, it emphasizes that dignity is irrevocably linked to family. Whether wanting to earn an income or simply to define one's self and one's place in the world, in Brighton Beach Memoirs the quest for dignity begins and ends at home.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Journeys into Night

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853

Brighton Beach Memoirs is Neil Simon's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Simon is the world's richest playwright and he even owns the Eugene O'Neill Theater, but though you can buy the name, you cannot buy the genius. Actually, rather than into one night, the play takes us into two consecutive Wednesday evenings in 1937 (when Simon was ten rather than, as in the play, fifteen), but the pseudo-autobiographical hero is actually called Eugene, and there is an ostensible scraping off of layers of patina to get at the alleged truth; if no one takes dope, there are plenty of dopes around, not least the author, who, like all those comedians wanting to play Hamlet, imagines that he can write a serious play.

The first problem with Memoirs is that it has no intention of being truthful. In a Times interview with Leslie Bennetts, Simon tells of a father who would disappear for months, years, finally forever, and who'd have terrible fights with his wife. In the play, Jack Jerome is the most responsible, wise, and generous man alive, and his wife, Kate, heroically coping with the deprivations of the Depression, is not a jot behind him in magnanimity. Her one true fight is with her widowed sister, Blanche, who, with her daughters Nora and Laurie, has been living with the Jeromes for years, working herself blind to earn her keep, but a drain nevertheless. Otherwise, the fights are harmless ones between various parents and children—a sort of Life With Father Jewish, but not too Jewish, style—and even the children's missteps are footling if not laudable: Nora's wanting to accept a role in a Broadway musical and quit school, elder brother Stanley's near loss of his job when he sticks up for a black handyman abused by the boss. Or, hoping to make extra money for the family, Stanley does once gamble away a week's salary and run off intending to join the army; but he soon returns, makes back most of the money, and gets closer to Dad than ever.

Then why, you ask, the comparison to O'Neill's play? Because Eugene is a budding playwright with problems (not TB, to be sure, only puberty and lust for his cousin), there is a serious money shortage, there is near tragedy in the house across the street, there is the Depression and the threat of Hitler to Jewish relatives in Europe, there is Father's losing one of his jobs and getting a minor heart attack, there is everyone's hurting everyone else's feelings and apologizing profusely and making up. What there isn't, though, is honesty. The first act is typical Simon farce cum sentimentality, and the better for it; the second, in which ostensibly grave themes and conflicts are hauled out, is fraught with earnest speechifying, ponderous and platitudinous moralizing, and heartwarming uplift oozing all over the place, with everybody's soul putting on Adler Elevator shoes and ending up closer to heaven. The dramaturgy itself becomes woefully schematic: Every character gets his tête-à-tête with every other character who has taken umbrage, and all ends in sunshine—even for the endangered relatives in Europe.

If all this were presented as farce, it might work. If it were honestly and painfully told, it might work. But Simon, who has also filled the play with those odious clean dirty jokes, wants to have his pain and let everybody eat cake, too. So everyone is funny and noble and ends happily, and Neil— Eugene—who is also a good student and obedient son—is funniest and noblest of all, even if given to somewhat excessive masturbation. Actually, the masturbation is more joked about than real—except, of course, in the playwriting. Simon is a reverse Antaeus: The closer his feet get to touching the ground of reality, the weaker his writing becomes. And, as a final dishonesty, his Jewish family talks and looks as un-Jewish as possible (through the writing, casting, and directing), so that Wasps should not feel excluded, let alone offended. In fact, the Irish family across the way—though drowning in drink and filth—are, we are sanctimoniously informed, very nice people indeed.

Gene Saks has directed adroitly and vivaciously; Patricia Zipprodt' s costumes and Tharon Musser' s lighting can nowise be faulted, and even a second-best set from David Mitchell is quite good enough. The cast is uneven: Zeljko Ivanek (Stanley) is marvelous; Matthew Broderick (Eugene) fine, but too young to begin doing shtick; Mandy Ingber (Laurie) a perfect stage brat, which, however, is not the same as a real kid; Elizabeth Franz (Kate) commanding but out of character; Peter Michael Goetz (Jack) given to breaking up his speeches nonsensically, and dull to boot; Joyce Van Patten (Blanche) nondescript to the point of vanishing; and Jodi Thelen (Nora) simperingly tremulous to the point of being sickening. Still, the man behind me was convulsed with laughter; if you like commercial theater at its most mercenary, you should love this one.

Source: John Simon, ‘‘Journeys into Night’’ in New York, Vol. 16, no. 15, April 11, 1983 , p. 55. Simon is one of the best-known theatre critics in America.

Portrait of the Artist As a Young Saint

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653

Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at the Alvin, is a sentimental comedy decorated with surefire one-liners and inadvertently revealing its shallowness by means of an occasional awkward lunge in the direction of what the author evidently believes to be profundity. (In the midst of all his jokes about adolescent sex and domineering Jewish mothers in the nineteen-thirties, Simon manages to introduce the fate of European Jewry under Hitler, borrowing from that historic tragedy a weight of emotion that his ramshackle little comedy has done nothing to deserve.) Simon has acknowledged to the press that "Memoirs’’ has a greater autobiographical content than his other plays, and he finds, as autobiographers are wont to do, a seriousness in the heart of the play which members of the audience may perceive not as seriousness but as an exceptionally unabashed manifestation of self-approval. For the play is a posy presented to the author with love from the author, who appears unaware that he is telling the same story that hundreds upon hundreds of writers before him have written and that hundreds upon hundreds of writers after him are sure to write—the story of the gifted child who grows up to become the maker of the very work of art by which we are being entertained. Dickens, Joyce, O'Neill, Lowell, and scores of other novelists, playwrights, and poets have achieved masterpieces in this genre, but more commonly the product is narcissistic claptrap.

"Memoirs'' has to do with seven members of a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn, whom we observe struggling to survive the dark days of the Great Depression. Remarkably, all seven of them have hearts of gold, and so do a couple of characters of some importance who remain offstage. Life is harsh, but everyone is doing his best to cope. Eugene, a.k.a. Neil, is a brilliant student and a successful wise-cracker; at fifteen, he is undergoing the despairs and delights of an inexplicably delayed sexual awakening. Eugene's curiosity about girls' bodies is feverish and unassuageable, though he learns what he can from his older brother, Stanley. The object of Eugene's unspoken passion is Nora, the elder of two cousins of his; unfortunately, Nora and Eugene share nothing but the unwelcome intimacy of the only bathroom in the house. Blanche, mother of Nora and Laurie (the snooty, pampered younger cousin), is a sister of Eugene's mother, Kate. Blanche is a widow and is well aware that, the house being too small for all of them and the burden of its upkeep too heavy for Eugene's sorely overworked father, she must find a new husband as quickly as possible; by ill luck, the likeliest candidate is an Irish Catholic alcoholic, living across the street with his aged mother. To Kate, everyone who is not a Jew is a cossack (at this point in the play we come close to echoing "Abie's Irish Rose,’’ a hit of half a century ago); the alcoholic gets into trouble and misses his first—and only—date with Blanche, and other vexations beset the family, but their essential saintliness remains undiminished. The last words of the play are a cry of joy from Eugene on having at last outdistanced the ignominious pangs of puberty.

"Memoirs'' provides the occasion for a virtuoso acting performance by Matthew Broderick, as Eugene. Without him, much of the pleasing humaneness of the play would degenerate into slapstick. Elizabeth Franz is a conventional Jewish scold of a mother, Joyce Van Patten is the woebegone Blanche, and Peter Michael Goetz is often touching as the exhausted paterfamilias. Zeljko Ivanek, Jodi Thelen, and Mandy Ingber play Stanley, Nora, and Laurie, respectively. The slick direction is by Gene Saks, and the setting, costumes, and lighting—all of the highest quality—are by David Mitchells, Patricia Zipprodt, and Tharon Musser.

Source: Brendan Gill, "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Saint’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. LIX, no. 8, April 11, 1983, p. 109.


Critical Overview